15 September 2002

Britain funds £13.4m GM programme in Third World

By Severin Carrell and Geoffrey Lean

Clare Short's overseas aid department has quietly funded a £13.4m programme to create a new generation of GM animals, crops and drugs throughout the Third World.

The so far unpublicised programme has financed research in more than 24 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe into at least 80 GM projects ranging from long-life bananas to fast-growing pigs and fish, from disease-resistant rice to stopping tsetse flies
carrying sleeping sickness.

The scale of the long-running programme has taken even experts by surprise. Dr Sue Mayer, director of the charity Genewatch UK and a government adviser, said that Ms Short's Department for International Development (DFID) had "deceived" the public about the full scale of the research programme.

She said: "They have got to be completely open. They have given us isolated snapshots of the programme, but this gives a distorted picture of the direction of the research and of what actually has been done."

Ms Short retorted that her department was merely helping poor countries to keep pace with GM crops and medicines being created by Western governments and companies. British charities, she said, had no right to tell less developed nations what to do.

"It would be wrong to block research which might bring real benefits to the poor," she said. "We believe that they and their governments should decide if such knowledge is useful to them."

But developing states are increasingly rejecting GM technology. Four years ago the representatives of every African country, except South Africa, signed a statement at a conference on GM crops and foods in Rome saying that they "strongly objected" to having their poverty used "to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us".

This summer, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique refused to accept GM grain as aid from the US, despite an impending famine which threatens 10 million people in southern Africa. And when Secretary of State Colin Powell attacked their stance in his speech to this month's Earth Summit in Johannesburg, he was heckled by delegates.

The DFID programme stretches back to the early days of GM crop research, when its predecessor department, the Overseas Development Administration, funded projects to create disease-resistant cassava and groundnuts in the late 1980s.

Under John Major, the ODA gave China money to help it develop faster-growing, leaner "transgenic" pigs. It also spent nearly £500,000 on experiments to genetically modify the tsetse fly, to stop it carrying the "sleeping sickness" which affects humans and cattle across sub-Saharan Africa.

But from the mid-1990s, DFID's programme has massively expanded, leading to research projects on four continents, from Cuba and Malaysia to Sri Lanka and Kenya. Although 24 countries are listed as partners, some projects are expected to involve up to 22 other
countries. Projects include virus and parasite-resistant rice in Africa and India, goat and cattle vaccines for Ethiopia and India, GM tilapia fish in Thailand, weevil-resistant potatoes for Bolivia and GM maize roots in Tanzania.

Included in these schemes are projects linked to a controversial £65m DFID aid programme in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

Critics allege the aid will help push 20 million subsistence farmers off their land. Yet little has been disclosed about the scale of its programme, in a move which has disturbed some senior DFID officials.

Earlier this year, the department compiled a list of 59 projects, worth £10.3m, which involved "the potential release of genetically modified organisms" and a handful of studies into the economical and political issues posed by biotechnology in developing countries. Yet this list failed to mention another 22 DFID projects worth more than £3.1m: in total, DFID has spent at least £13.4m on GM research.

Environment groups have applauded Ms Short for aggressively attacking firms such as Monsanto for including "terminator" genes in GM crops. Yet DFID's studies have added to campaigners' suspicions that it is forcing GM on the Third World, in step with biotech
companies. Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth called for MPs to conduct an inquiry into DFID's spending. "In public, the Government says we're approaching GM technology with caution, but overseas they are gung-ho. The level of the Government's hypocrisy knows no
bounds," he said.

Additional research by Steve Bloomfield